How Coming Out Atheist Will Make Life Better For You And Others

This is an excerpt from the new book Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why. Available in ebook, print, and audiobook.

This is the crux of it:

Coming out atheist will very likely make your life better.

This, by far, is the most important reason to come out. There's no point in coming out solely as a noble sacrifice. It's great to want to be a role model for other atheists—but you're going to be a lousy role model if being out makes you miserable. You have to do this for you. You have to do your own cost/benefit analysis, and weigh the plusses and minuses yourself.

Fortunately, there are lots of plusses.

For most atheists, coming out improved their lives—even if they alienated friends and family in doing so. In all the coming-out stories that I've read and heard, this is the consistent pattern, the conclusion the stories overwhelmingly point to. And this conclusion is backed up by good sociological research (although this research is somewhat limited in scope, and more needs to be done). There's often an initial period of trauma, just as there often is when people become atheists in the first place. But once that's passed, most atheists are happier after they've come out. Even if their worst fears are realized—even if they do lose people they love, even if they are alienated from their community and have to find a new one—for the most part, they're still happier. I've read and heard literally hundreds of "coming out atheist" stories—and almost none of them ended with, "This was a bad idea, and I wish I hadn't done it." Some people regret the particular way that they came out, and if they had it to do over again they might do it differently—but almost nobody says they wouldn't do it at all. In fact, in all the coming out stories I read for this book, only one person said they regretted it. (That was Snowball, by the way—you can read her story in the chapter on coming out to family.)

Why would this be?

Given the discrimination and bigotry many atheists face, given the myths and misinformation and flat-out lies that get spread about us, given how divisive religious differences often are—why would this be?

For starters, living in the closet can be really hard. Having to keep silent about something that's important to you? Worrying about what could happen if people found out? Keeping track of who knows what about you, and worrying about how people might hurt you if they decided to tell? Covering your tracks when you go on the Internet, and worrying what might happen if you slip up? Constantly measuring your words, even in atheist spaces, to make sure nobody could trace your words back to you? Feeling like you're being dishonest with the people you care about most? That's a hard way to live.

Being out of the closet, on the other hand... well, I'm not going to say that it's easy. Very little in life is easy. But when you're out of the closet, you can relax. You can be more open. You can be less afraid, even unafraid. You can connect with people more deeply. You can find friends, partners, communities, who share your values and your worldview, and who not only accept you but appreciate you as you are. The people who love you will really love you—not some other person walking around with your face and your name, pretending to be you. You can feel more honest. You can feel more like yourself.

There are happy stories about coming out atheist, and about being an out atheist, in almost every chapter of this book. But if you're still in doubt, ask your LGBT friends (or yourself, if you're an openly LGBT person): Was life easier and better while they were still closeted, or after they came out? Do they regret coming out? Even if it caused a family fight, even in a homophobic society that treats them as second-class, are they happier now that they're out of the closet?

There are lots of other reasons to come out: noble reasons, moral reasons, political reasons. But ultimately, you need to do this for

But what if you want a little more inspiration?

Let's say you're one of those hyper-compassionate do-gooders who always feels a little selfish when you do something just for yourself. (Yeah, I wouldn't know anything about that...) Let's say you've done the cost/benefit analysis, and you've looked at the research showing that coming out makes most atheists happier, and you've read the happy stories, and you've decided that you want to come out—but you need a little push to just do it already. Here's a good one:

Coming out helps other atheists.

For starters, and for enders, and for many places in between: Coming out makes it easier for other atheists to come out. As you read this book, you'll see these stories again and again. So many atheists say they were emboldened to come out simply by seeing other open atheists: family members, friends, co-workers, people on online forums, even atheist writers or public figures they've never met. And again and again, atheists tell the flip side of this story. They tell friends or colleagues or family members that they're an atheist—and the reaction is, "Me too!" The reaction is ecstatic relief, because the person they told doesn't believe in God either, and they've been in the closet, and they've been scared to tell us.

It's easier to come out when you know you're not the only one. It's easier when you see other atheists leading happy, meaningful lives. It's easier when you know that you'll have other people to talk with about your atheism, and can get advice and support from them. It's easier when you know that you'll have a supportive community that can give you some or all of what you got from religion.

You'll see a lot of these stories in this book. I'll especially be talking about it in the chapter on visibility and role models. But I'll give you a little taste now.

Lexie, a university student from a religious community in Australia, says of coming out to her parents, "It did help that my brother had also come out as atheist... so I had someone to chat to about it. Initially we both went and hid in a bedroom to chat about religion and atheism but we started actually chatting in the living room and stopped being so secretive. We've finally got to the point where mum at least accepts what we are even if she doesn't understand it."

Daff came out to her family when she told them she was going to an atheist convention. "Dad has since admitted," she says, "when pressed by Mum and sister, that he doesn't believe in God. He's never said anything like that previously."

In her interview for The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion-and Others Should Too by Candace R. M. Gorham, Mandisa says that seeing other out black atheists made it easier for her to come out more, to the point where she's now a serious activist in the atheist movement. "If you would've told me a year ago," she says, "or a month ago, that this would be the direction that I'm in now, where I would be interviewed as someone who, I guess, is viewed as key to this movement, I would've said you were lying. After doing some research, I see that there are other black atheists who have been out longer and have been more vocal about it than I have. So, you couldn't have told me that I would be someone who is looked at as an inspiration in this thing... So, we're trying to let people know that we are here and there are other black atheists, other humanists. And there are more people coming out; so, you are not alone in your thought process. There are others who struggle with the same things."

Lisa, whose family lives in upstate New York, came out to her mother when her mom initiated the conversation—about how she was an atheist. "Emboldened by this," she says, "I initiated a conversation with my dad. He believes St. Patrick and Jesus were sorcerers and wants to follow in their footprints, but respects my atheism." She also says that when she was in the military, the presence of an openly atheist non-commissioned officer gave her the courage to come out to everyone. "I guess the big lesson in my stories," she says, "is other atheists coming out helped me come out repeatedly."

In The Young Atheist's Survival Guide: Helping Secular Students Thrive, Hemant Mehta tells the story of Daniel, a high school atheist at Wekiva High School in Florida, who was emboldened by the presence of an openly atheist teacher, not only to come out, but to start an atheist student group. "When I visited my Psychology teacher-to-be during orientation," Daniel says, "I noticed the wonderful The God Delusion on his 'List of Books that Influenced My Life'... In addition to his atheism, I later found him to have a sort of activist demeanor about him and [he] eagerly accepted my request [to become the group sponsor]."

And WilloNyx, who's a teacher, an out atheist, and a parent in a small town in Tennessee, says, "Often when I come out I am met with the 'I thought I was the only one in this town' theme. Actually there are probably about 30 atheists I have personally met here. We are not alone but being out is the only way to know that."

Coming out has a snowball effect. Each person who comes out makes it easier for the next person... and they make it easier for the next person, and so on, and so on... until eventually, atheism will become entirely uncontroversial, and every atheist who wants to be out can do it without fear.

How else does coming out help other atheists? Well, coming out changes people's minds about us. You're probably familiar with the misinformation and bigotry about atheists: that we have no morality, that we have no meaning or joy in our lives, etc. The single best way to counter these myths is simply to come out: to be living, breathing counter-examples proving that the myths are just flatly wrong. We can make arguments showing that the myths are irrational; we can show research showing that they're unsubstantiated; and all of that is useful. But ultimately, what changes people's minds about atheists is simply coming into contact with us: seeing that someone they know, someone they love or respect or just think is a basically decent person, is an atheist.

This has repeatedly been shown to be true for every other marginalized demographic (Google contact hypothesis to see what I mean), and it's true for us. In fact, in the United States, public opinion of atheists is already going up. It's still way lower than it should be, but it's risen noticeably in just the last few years. I don't think it's a coincidence that those same years have also seen a huge rise in atheist visibility, and in atheists coming out.

As former Southern Baptist Rocky Oliver says on the Coming Out Godless Project website, "One of my closest friends that I hang with locally is a devout Christian who listens only to Christian radio, is very involved in his church, and who really does live his faith. We have great discussions, and we have learned a lot from each other—and I believe he has a newfound respect for me as an atheist because I have shown him that you can be a 'good,' 'just,' and 'moral' person without having a belief in a deity." And in The Young Atheist's Survival Guide, author Hemant Mehta says, "If young atheists can make themselves known to their classmates, there's a good chance atheism will become more acceptable—and significantly less demonized—as they all grow older."

And in fact, for atheists specifically, there's research supporting the conclusion that anti-atheist prejudice is reduced in places where atheists are more common—or where we're perceived to be more common. As the number of atheists—and perceived atheists—goes up, prejudice against us goes down. For atheists, overcoming bigotry isn't just about people getting to know us. At least part of it is simply about people seeing how many of us there are.

So when you come out as an atheist, you're putting a little dent in anti-atheist bigotry. And that makes life easier for other atheists. The atheists who feel that they can't come out now, because they might lose their job or their home or custody of their kids... well, they'll be less likely to lose their job or their home or custody of their kids. They'll be less likely to have an anti-atheist boss, or landlord, or custody judge. And even if they do have an anti-atheist boss or landlord or judge, and they really can't come out, they'll be less likely to have anti-atheist co-workers, teachers, school administrators, county clerks, store clerks, car mechanics, neighbors, friends, family members, all grinding them down and forcing them to bite their tongue and adding to the stress of being a closeted atheist. Every piece of anti-atheist bigotry that you chip away at by coming out is a piece of bigotry that some other atheist doesn't have to deal with.

Being an out atheist also means you can do work that other atheists aren't able to do—again, atheists who really can't come out. Every time you're at a party or an online forum and say, "Hey, I'm an atheist, and the things you're saying about atheists just aren't true"; every time you go to a community meeting and say, "Can we please have an atheist on the interfaith panel?" or, "Can we please not open our meetings with a prayer?;" every time you write to an elected official or go to a school board meeting and say, "I'm an atheist, and I don't want religion taught to my kids in the public school"—you're speaking for other atheists who feel the same way you do, but can't say so.

In The Young Atheist's Survival Guide, Hemant Mehta tells the story of high school atheist Matthew LaClair, who fought back against illegal religious proselytizing from a teacher in his public high school—and who took the shrewd step of making audio recordings, not only of the proselytizing, but of the subsequent meeting he had with this teacher and the school principal. "In Matthew LaClair's situation," Mehta writes, "a teacher had been making religious and political comments in the classroom for over a decade, but no one ever did anything about it. We don't know why they all kept silent, but it's very likely that some of those students sat uncomfortably in class, knowing their teacher's actions were wrong. Maybe they considered telling an adult, but they thought their word would never be believed." LaClair's willingness to be an out atheist made it possible for him to fight this fight.

As you speak out more, and change more people's minds about us, you'll be making the world better for these other atheists. You'll be making it easier for them to eventually come out if they want to. And even if they never come out, you'll still be making their lives better, a little less full of bigotry.

And, of course, being an out atheist makes it easier for you to participate in atheist communities if you're so inclined—and community building is one of the most powerful things we can do to help other atheists. (I'll talk more about that in the chapter on building community.)

Don't come out to be a martyr. That's one of the best things about atheism—we don't need martyrs, and we don't want them. But if you need a nudge of encouragement, and if knowing that you're helping others will help you take that step, keep this in mind. Think about all the atheists who came out before you, and who made it easier for you to even contemplate coming out. Think about the fact that you're reading this book—a book you might not have even heard about if it hadn't been for a visible, vocal atheist community talking about it. And think about how good it feels to pay it forward.


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